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Visions of Sugar Plums

1907 Cover of A Visit from Saint Nicholas.With Clement C. Moore’s 1823 poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, we all now associate “Sugar Plums” with Christmas. In this early American depiction of Christmas Eve, we find the trappings of modern Christmas, from stockings to Jolly old Saint Nick, himself, round, red and fur trimmed, slipping up the chimney after leaving piles of presents for the children, “asleep in their beds, while visions of Sugar Plums dance in their heads.”

So what did a Regency Sugar Plum look like? The 1914  OED describes it thus,  “Sugar-plum – A small round or oval sweetmeat, made of boiled sugar and variously flavoured and coloured; a comfit”.

“Plum” in the name of this confection does not mean plum in the sense of the fruit of the same name. At one time, “plum” was used to denote any dried fruit.  Modern “Sugar plums” may be made from any combination of dried plums (aka prunes), dried figs, dried apricots, dried dates, and dried cherries, but traditional sugar plums contain none of these.

The word came in general usage in 1600s, when adding layers of sweet which give sugar plums and comfits their hard shell was done through a slow and labour intensive process called panning. Until the mechanization of the process, it often took several days, thus the sugar plum was largely a luxury product. In fact in the 18th century the word plum became a British slang for a big pile of money or a bribe.

 

A confectioner creating 'sugar plums' .
A confectioner creating ‘sugar plums’ .

Georgian Sugar Plums, then, looked much more like today’s Jordan Almonds, than anything else. Theodore Garrett, author of The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery (1890) notes that “These are described under CARAWAY COMFITS, a more elaborate variety of them being known as DRAGÉES OR FRENCH SUGAR PLUMS…small strips of cinnamon [can also be] made to start off French Sugar Plums.

“Hero’s recruiting at Kelsey’s; – or – Guard-Day at St. James’s” by James Gillray (1797). Notice his cone of sugarplums.
“Hero’s recruiting at Kelsey’s; – or – Guard-Day at St. James’s” by James Gillray (1797). Notice the cone of sugarplums.

William Alexis Jarrin, author of The Italian Confectioner; Or, Complete Economy of Desserts, According to the Most Modern and Approved Practice, 1829, details the process, thus:

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